The French historian Ernest Lavisse (1842-1922) was active in educational reform and edited two multi-volume histories of France.
Ernest Lavisse was born on Dec. 17, 1842, in the village of Nouvion-en-Thiérache. He retained a lifelong fondness for his native town and even as professor at the Sorbonne returned each year to address the school's graduating class. After secondary school in the nearby city of Laon, Lavisse continued his education at the Lycée Charlemagne in Paris and the École Normale Supérieure.
After a short student flirtation with republican politics, Lavisse returned to the Bonapartist sympathies he had learned from his family and in 1868 became secretary to Napoleon III's minister of education. Soon afterward he was named private tutor to the prince imperial, with whom he maintained a correspondence for many years after his teaching job was ended by the War of 1870.
Convinced by the defeat of 1870 that France had something to learn from Germany, Lavisse left for Berlin in 1873. There he remained for 3 years, studying with Georg Waitz and observing the structure of German education. When he was appointed lecturer at the École Normale in 1878, he entered the campaign to reform the French educational system, a campaign he pushed even more vigorously when named to the Sorbonne, first as assistant in 1883 and finally as professor of modern history in 1888. To the Sorbonne he introduced the Rankean method of seminar instruction in historical research. His untiring advocacy was largely responsible for the law of 1896 that united the various faculties of law, medicine, letters, and science into a single university. He also campaigned for changes in primary and secondary education. The history textbooks he wrote for the public schools went through many editions and, for almost two generations, made his name a household word even in the remotest corner of the French countryside.
Lavisse's historical writing was devoted largely to Germany, the most important being The Youth of Frederick the Great (1891) and Frederick the Great before His Accession (1893). His great work, however, was editing a History of France from the Beginnings to the Revolution (9 vols., 1900-1911), to which he attracted the greatest French historians of the day. His careful editing and his inspiration gave an unusual unity to a work composed by a number of strong-minded individuals. To the work he himself contributed a two-volume history of Louis XIV, painting brilliant portraits of the men and women of the reign but also depriving Louis of the heroic structure that Voltaire and Michelet had given him and fastening on the aging king the responsibility for the miseries of the end of his reign.
During World War I Lavisse was an active propagandist, writing numerous anti-German articles for the Revue de Paris. After the war he edited a second collection, History of Contemporary France (10 vols., 1920-1922), which he concluded with a remarkable statement of hope in the future of republican institutions. He died on Aug. 18, 1922.
Some biographical information and discussion of Lavisse's work are in Bernadotte E. Schmitt, ed., Some Historians of Modern Europe (1942), and Fritz Stern, ed., The Varieties of History (1956). □